By Ann Silverthorn
The 1970s were marked by turmoil, largely caused by gasoline shortages, a controversial war, and a presidential resignation. There was also the Watergate scandal, double-digit inflation, and a nuclear accident at Three-Mile Island. Is it any wonder that disaster movies found their way onto the big screen in the 1970s? An airport calamity, a devastating earthquake, a cruise ship wreck, a high-rise blaze, a dirigible explosion, and even a very, very large shark brought to life the fears of most people and distracted them from what was happening in government and the economy.
The 1970 Academy Awards launched the decade with wins for the well-loved Western genre, including John Wayne’s only Oscar for his role as a one-eyed lawman in True Grit. By 1971, however, the disaster movie trend began in the form of a blizzard that wreaked havoc in Airport, for which Helen Hayes won Best Supporting Actress.
In 1973, movie-goers were thrust onto an upside-down luxury liner in The Poseidon Adventure, which won a special Academy Award for its visual effects. The ensemble cast of characters are ringing in the New Year when an earthquake causes a tidal wave, flipping the ship rather than sinking it. The survivors, including both cowards and heroes, must use their combined wit and talents to navigate their way upward to the hull of the ship for any hope of rescue.
Deserving of mention is one of the non-disaster greats of the 1970s, The Sting, which won Best Picture in 1974. It creates more than enough excitement for the audience as two grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) attempt a multi-level, risky racetrack con on a dangerous racketeer.
In 1975, Paul Newman starred in another Oscar-winning film, this time a disaster epic: The Towering Inferno. Newman teamed up with Steve McQueen to save the attendees of a party, celebrating the opening of the tallest building in the world, when fire breaks out. Sadly, being trapped on the top floors of a skyscraper would become a horrific nightmare in real life just a quarter-century later.
Also in 1975, Earthquake received five nominations and two wins for bringing to life the fear for many Southern Californians, even today, of “the big one.” The ensemble cast was headed by the legendary Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner as the city’s residents pick through the wreckage and make some dramatic rescues.
The 1976 Academy Awards honored a different type of disaster film as best picture. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest highlighted a broken mental-health care facility with a tyrant nurse in charge, who was probably more ill than the inmates. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher won for Best Actor and Actress and the film also took home Oscars for directing and writing.
It was also in 1976 that the movie, which made America afraid to go into the water, won Oscars for best music, sound, and film editing. The legacy of Jaws lingers even today as each summer, we read about reports of great white sharks and the inevitable attacks on surfers and swimmers by various-sized predators.
The end of the 1970s featured movies that won best picture and are still worth viewing all these years later. These include Rocky, which won Best Picture in 1977 and also earned Sylvester Stallone nominations in both acting and screenwriting. Annie Hall, starring Diane Keaton, won Best Picture in 1978 and set off a menswear fashion trend for women. And finally, in 1979, The Deer Hunter took home the Best Picture award for its look back at the Vietnam War and examination of the lessons learned by several friends who experience the realities of combat.